Foreign Policy and Christian Conscience

Speaking as a Presbyterian and also as a diplomat who has served in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Riga, Lisbon, Moscow, and Washington, George F. Kennan addresses the Christian responsibility in international life
Atomic Testing

But this is not the only moral connotation of the atom. There is another in the great controversy that has raged over the question of atomic testing, its effect on the atmosphere, and its consequences for human health. My colleagues in the scientific field advise me to stay away from this subject. They point out that there is a great deal about it which is not yet known: that scientists are themselves in wide disagreement about its seriousness; that I, as a scientific layman, would not even be able to understand the terms in which it is put. All this I readily concede; but even the little that is known to the general public is enough to pose a problem of Christian conscience.

Let us take a random sampling of recent press reports. During the first eight months of 1958, we are told, the fall-out of radioactive strontium on New York City increased by 25 per cent. Readings in Los Angeles are said by the health department of that city to have revealed for limited periods a count of five hundred to one thousand times the normal radioactivity in the atmosphere and double the intensity considered safe for continuous exposure over a lifetime. Only a few weeks ago observations in Sweden showed radioactivity at ten kilometers above sea level to be five times as intense as it was earlier in the year, and individual particles were detected (apparently at ground level), "larger and thought to be more radioactive, than any yet reported except from the immediate area of a test explosion." A similar report has come from Brazil.

All this is only the beginning; a large part of the fall-out from the tests conducted thus far is, we are told, still in the higher atmosphere and will not descend for years. Furthermore, the effect of radioactive substances on human health is cumulative, so that any unnatural exposure presumably reduces the tolerance of exposure from natural causes or for medical purposes.

In the face of these facts, I listen with some amazement to the statements with which some of the scientists endeavor to reassure us about such developments. The damages, they say, have been "negligible" so far. Not many deaths, they say, can be expected to ensue from this increase in radioactivity compared with those which occur from natural causes. One scientist, pained and astounded at the concern about the radioactive particles in Sweden, explained that if, for example, 100 people would be killed by the effects of a normal atomic explosion, then only 102 could be expected to die from the effects of the increased radioactivity which Sweden has been experiencing.

But whoever gave us the right, as Christians, to take even one innocent human life, much less 102 or a 102,000? I recall no quantitative stipulation in the Sixth Commandment. God did not say through Moses that to take 102,000 lives was wicked but 102 was all right. I fail to see how any of this can be reconciled with the Christian conscience.

I am delighted that our government now shows a serious readiness to work toward the termination of these experiments with atomic explosives. We must go farther and work toward the elimination of the use of atomic weapons in war as well. This cannot be done in a day, and not all that needs to be done can be done by us. But we can at least make a beginning by endeavoring to free ourselves from our unwise dependence on atomic weapons in our own military calculations, from our fateful commitment to the first use of these weapons, whether or not they are used against us.

Our Obligation to the Future

There is a principle involved here which has application beyond just the field of weapons, to a number of other effects in the introduction of modern technology. We of this generation are only the custodians, not the owners, of the earth on which we live. There were others who lived here before, and we hope there will be others who are going to live here afterward. We have an obligation to past generations and to future ones no less solemn than our obligations to ourselves. I fail to see that we are in any way justified in making, for the safety or convenience of our own generation, alterations in our natural environment which may importantly change the conditions of life for those who come afterward.

The moral laws which we acknowledge predicate the existence of a certain sort of world--a certain sort of natural environment--in which people live. This setting presumably reflects God's purpose. We did not create it; we do not have the right to destroy it. We know the problems which this environment poses for man. We know the nature of the Christian effort to find answers to them. We live by this lore. When we permit this environment to be altered quite basically by things we do today, we are taking upon ourselves a responsibility for which I find no authority in the Christian faith.

Obviously, we do not know what the ultimate effects will be of the atomic weapons tests we have already conducted. I am not sure that we know what will be the ultimate effects of our methods of disposal of radioactive wastes. I doubt that we know what we are doing to the sea through the use of modern detergents and the fouling of its surface with oil. I am not sure that we know what we are doing with modern insecticides, which we employ quite recklessly in agriculture for our immediate purposes, giving little thought to their ultimate effects. We who call ourselves Christians must acknowledge responsibility in these matters, most of which are international in their implications.

We will unavoidably find in the motives and workings of the political process much that is ambiguous in the Christian sense. In approaching the individual conflicts between governments which make up so much of international relations, we must beware of pouring Christian enthusiasm into unsuitable vessels which were at best designed to contain the earthy calculations of the practical politicians. But there are phases of the government's work in which we can look for Christian meaning. We can look for it, first of all, in the methods of our diplomacy, where decency and humanity of spirit can never fail to serve the Christian cause.

Beyond that there loom the truly apocalyptic dangers of our time, the ones that threaten to put an end to the very continuity of history outside which we would have no identity, no face, either in civilization, in culture, or in morals. These dangers represent for us not only political questions but stupendous moral problems, to which we cannot deny the courageous Christian answer. Here our main concern must be to see that man, whose own folly once drove him from the Garden of Eden, does not now commit the blasphemous act of destroying, whether in fear or in anger or in greed, the great and lovely world in which, even in his fallen state, he has been permitted by the grace of God to live.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In